|from Forest Service|
The 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest sits atop the eastern portion of the Marcellus shale formation. Now, the U.S. Forest Service has announced that it will allow oil and gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing or any other legal and regulatory approved method, but only in the 16% of the forest with existing leases and privately owned oil and gas rights. This final plan reversed a 2011 Environmental Impact Assessment that recommended allowing drilling in 993,000 acres of 1.1-million-acre forest, but banned hydraulic fracking. The finalized plan will allow drilling on 10,000 acres in the forest now leased for energy development and on 167,000 acres whose mineral rights are privately owned. (The government never owned those rights. When the government acquired the land for the forest the owners retained the mineral rights.) Currently, there are no active gas wells in the forest or in surrounding private tracts.
The George Washington-Jefferson National Forest contains the headwaters of the James and Potomac Rivers, the lifeblood of our region. The Potomac is the major source of drinking water for more than 4 million people in Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC, and the James River supplies Richmond. The headlands and watersheds for both rivers are within the eastern edge of the forest along the edge of the Marcellus shale formation. The entire Chesapeake Bay region is under a mandated pollution diet from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Heavy equipment, drilling and other activities involved in accessing oil and gas reserves by any method could increase sediment runoff and potentially release pollution to the Potomac River.
This decision by the Forest Service revises the 1993 Land and Resource Management Plan for the Forest and was a good compromise in closing most of the forest to resource development and honoring private ownership of the mineral rights and existing leases. Originally, the Forest Service recommended opening 993,000 acres to gas leasing, but banning hydraulic fracturing on all of that land. Now the plan will allow drilling on 10,000 acres in the forest now leased for energy development and on 167,000 acres whose mineral rights are privately owned; no other areas will be available for drilling. However, the gas and oil wells can be developed using any legal technology including fracking. Currently, there are no active gas wells in the forest or in surrounding private tracts. The revised plan will also increase the riparian buffers to 100 feet from 66 feet along perennial streams, reduce the forest road system to 1,500 miles or roads from 1,700 miles and increase wilderness area acreage to 70,000 acres from 40,000 acres. These changes will have a big impact in protecting our water resources and the forest.